May 3, 2010

How Not to Adapt a Book to Film

It's no great surprise that every time a new film adaptation is announced, the online film community reacts with a combination or excitement and dread. Our hopes are kept alive by the sporadic successful book-to-film adaptations. Where the Wild Things Are, The Lord of the Rings, No Country for Old Men, Sense and Sensibility, The Silence of the Lambs... great adaptations are possible, if rare. Most are not great. Most are barely mediocre recreations of the source material, unimaginatively mushed into script form and thoughtlessly cast, shot, and edited. Some are so bad that they effectively ruin the books that spawned them. They bring out the weaknesses of the source material, amplifying the flawed parts of a book that we once liked, if not loved. Don't even get me started on The Time Traveler's Wife. I mean, Eric Bana. That's like casting, I don't know, a chicken breast as your lead role. Or a bar stool. Or a rolled up piece of beige carpet. Eric Bana?

And then there is The Lovely Bones. The book, by Alice Sebold, is not the Great American Novel. But it is wildly popular, and upon reading it I found I respected the grace with which is handles some truly grisly and complicated stuff--namely the rape/murder scene of a fourteen-year-old girl, Susie Salmon. The strength of The Lovely Bones is in the Salmon family. The author is never too easy on them; they seemed like real people, endlessly capable of human error, but equally capable of earning forgiveness. Mr. Harvey was an interesting element. He was depicted with the level of disgust appropriate for a man who rapes and murders young women, but Alice Sebold also seemed intent on examining him--making him a complete, horrible man rather than a simple monster.

What's really important is that the book seemed adaptable, and had some qualities that would compliment and benefit from a filmic treatment. Some books are just not meant for film (though that doesn't stop the studios from trying, year after year, to make films out of Atlas Shrugged, Enders Game, Naked Lunch, or Catcher in the Rye.) Too long, too much child-on-child violence, too weird, and too loose a narrative. The Lovely Bones had a clear narrative structure, complete with beginning and logical end, and while long, its core narrative could be easily teased from the larger, more sprawling story that the book provides. The main character, Susie, is likable and relatable, if dead. The trick of the thing would be in the pacing; the book takes its merry time, developing characters, creating new relationships, and following Mr. Harvey all while Susie watches from the in-between. A good script based on the novel would need to create a clear plot and character progression with a discernable objective or desire--something the audience knows it wants out of the story, something that keeps them watching, even if it is something as small as Susie kissing Ray Singh, or as large as her redemption.

So, Peter Jackson. Let's talk. What's your excuse? No, really. What is it? Because sir, I gotta say, this was bad. Student film bad. Made for TV movie bad. It was sloppy, boring, squeamish, overlong, and self-indulgent in the worst of ways. When I saw that you were tagged as director, I thought to myself, Muh, that could work. Not only have you more than proven your chops where adaptation and special effects are concerned, this film would demonstrate your ability to tackle realistic dramatic fare. Of course, that was assuming you didn't fuck it up. Which you did. Royally. I mean, everything was lined up for you. You got to work with the same screenwriters you've been working with since Heavenly Creatures. You were handed an amazing cast. Saoirse Ronan more than proved her ability in Atonement, and with Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg (I know, who would have thought he'd someday fall into the pantheon of heavy hitting actors?), Susan Surandon, and Stanley Tucci. To their credit, they all tried valiantly to redeem this quivering mass of a film, but to little avail. The film was tonally so all over the place that any actor would get dramatic whiplash. The Lovely Bones couldn't seem to decide whether it was an after school special, What Dreams May Come, or Halloween. Between those three choices, I think you really have to pick one. I feel like this film was just a brainstorm-vehicle. For example, all the interior scenes with Stanley Tucci's character appeared to be filmed in digital. I can just imagine how this happened.

Peter Jackson: I need a way to cleverly convey that Mr. Harvey is creepy. Other than having him rape and murder Susie on camera. That would be too logical and straightforward.
WETA: We can make him like like an orc. OO! No! A cave troll!
Peter Jackson: That is tempting. But no, I want something more... subtly ingenious.
Unpaid Lackey: Everything you do is ingenious, Sir Jackson.
Peter Jackson: Why thank you, Frodo. Wait! I have it! We'll shoot all of Mr. Harvey's scenes in digital! Like Lars von Trier! He's so hot right now! Digital! Yes!
Voice of Reason: Won't that be unnecessarily jarring, visually, and give the film the air of a poorly executed and clumsy student film project?
Peter Jackson: Silence! Your words are poison!

Which brings me to the most glaring flaw of the whole doomed affair (other than that whole segment where drunken Susan Sarandon appears and temporarily hijacks the film, turning it into an episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey): the complete absence of the rape/murder scene. In a film that purports to be based on a book that is expressly about a young girl and her family dealing with the ramifications of her extremely violent loss, don't you think you would want to include a smidge of said violence? I know that including a rape scene in a film is always a bit touchy, especially when it is the rape of a minor, but in this instance I think it was absolutely a mistake to omit it. The book is about trauma. The film seems to be about revenge/teenage fantasy. It's especially disappointing that the only scene in the film that seems to even remotely work is leading up to Susie's murder, when she and Mr. Havrey descend beneath the corn field into the room he built for the express purpose of what happens next. The scene takes its time, and we are left to watch as it slowly dawns on Susie that something is very wrong. Discomfort gives way to terror, she attempts an escape, and then... nothing. We follow Susie from the hatch as she sprints though the cornfield, through Ruth, and then vanishes. This is supposed to be the !!!!!! moment that we realize, Oh no! She didn't escape! In fact she's being raped and murdered! But we don't see this. Peter Jackson leaves us to imagine what is happening to Susie as ghost-Susie runs, terrified from the scene of her censored murder. There is no implication anywhere in the film that she was raped. Given Alice Sebold's personal and writing history, I have a feeling that this was a pretty important aspect of the novel for her. I especially think the rape is significant given that in the novel's final chapters, the rape scene is given a foil in which re-embodied Susie and Ray Singh make love. As part of Susie's redemption, she is given the chance to replace her experience of sex as violence with an experience of sex as love and pleasure. Pretty important. Just saying. But no, all too unsavory for Peter Jackson. So he removes it fully from the film's narrative. He also removes the murder, leaving the audience to fill in between the lines. And as a result, the film that follows does not work.

Because the audience can't experience the moment of trauma, we can't participate in the narrative that follows. We see Susie's anguish (though over what, we never see), and her parent's crippling grief, but it isn't a shared experience. As a result, we can't share in the catharsis, had the film provided the opportunity for catharsis. The end of the film is mangled--a slapped together, emotionally dead tack-on that doesn't seem to have much to do with anything. This is a film that could have only worked if it was emotionally evocative. The payoff of the novel isn't in Mr. Harvey's capture, or death. It was in Susie finding closure to her prematurely ended life, and the subsequent release of her family from their grief. The way Peter Jackson handles it, you'd think it was a murder mystery.

I am not an adaptation purist. It is a rare book that can give way to a film that is both completely faithful to the text and successful at the same time. I am a believer in emotionally-faithful adaptations--movies that may not replicate the novel's narrative scene for scene, but rather seek to capture a novel's emotional essence. In adapting The Lovely Bones, Peter Jackson seems more interested in special effects than story. In fact, I doubt he understood the story. If he had, I don't know how he could have made this film.

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